August 12, 2016

Breaking News: Why the World isn’t really Going to Hell.


Think the world is more dangerous than ever? Think again.

Orlando. Baton Rouge. Dallas. Iraq. Syria. The Gaza Strip.

It seems that every day I read the newspaper, I have another reason to feel disappointed in the human race. Another reason to despair that the world I’ll be leaving my daughter is a more dangerous, more vicious place than the one she entered.

And yet.

The eternal optimist in me struggles to accept that people are meaner today than in the past, that society is growing more and more violent.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker agrees. He believes today’s society is actually the most peaceful in history. He has counted the number of deaths from violence or war per 100,000 people per year since the start of World War II, and lists those numbers in his book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.

In 1940, your chance of dying from violence was about .003 percent. For the entirety of the 21st century, it’s less than .000001 percent!

According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, genocide deaths have sharply declined since the 1970s. This trend appears to be true at home as well. The Brookings Institute maintains that the U.S. national crime rate is about half of what it was at its height in 1991.

It would seem our world is getting safer—not more dangerous.

So why does it feel as if the world is careening toward destruction?

Well, the news is a for-profit enterprise that benefits financially from tragedy. Ever heard the maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads?” News organizations only report things that happen—not things that don’t happen. You know what headline you didn’t read today? “Sweden celebrates 217 years of peace.” Because not going to war is a non-event.

Positive stories, since they rarely boost sales, are after-thoughts, human-interest crumbs thrown in to fill a page or a time slot. Did you know that Peru has more species of butterflies than any other country? Or that Denmark holds the title of “world’s happiest country?” Would you be surprised to learn that Germans laugh more than any other European nation (um, I totally was)?

These facts won’t sell many papers. Or make us turn up the volume on the TV. Or click on the hyperlink.

How can we cultivate a more positive, hopeful view of our future?

We cannot conceivably avoid the news completely, nor can most of us move our families to some Scandinavian country. But we can choose to focus on the peaceful “non-events” that are the majority in the world.

The moments that count are the ones that aren’t “newsworthy.”

The way my daughter’s head smells like bread dough when she wakes up.

How I’m obsessed with the silky softness of my cat’s ears.

The feeling of peace I get meditating in the woods with only birdsong as the background music.

How the afternoon sun hits the cobalt bottle in the kitchen window just right, splashing sapphire light across the wooden planks and breaking my heart into a million joyful pieces.

These are my headlines.

True moments of love, compassion, and joy outnumber those of hatred and violence. Reading or watching sad and shocking news sends a signal to the amygdala, an area of the brain associated with fear. The amygdala then fires a chemical that makes us freeze or involuntarily jolt, on the lookout for (and fully expecting) danger.

The more this occurs, the more the expectation of tragedy becomes our default setting.

And then we read about another mass shooting, and it simply reinforces those dire expectations in an, “I knew it all along” sort of way. If we let fear drive the brain bus enough, hopelessness and anxiety become our worldview.

Perhaps we could, in this moment, start a revolution of writing our own headlines. The more we meditate, pray, or sit in silence with our truest selves, the easier it is to choose what is worthy of our attention.

Stop letting other people dictate your headlines, and start writing your own.


Author: Erin Smith

Image: Used with permission from The Awkward Yeti

Editor: Toby Israel


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